The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1)

Genevieve Cogman (2014)

An enjoyable premise and good story: a Library outside time whose Librarians collect different variations of fiction from parallel worlds whose inhabitants live under different constellations of science, magic, chaotic faerie infestations, vampires, and the like. Clearly the start of a series, and while I don’t think I’m really in the target audience, it’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed.

3/5. Finished Wednesday 29 November, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon

Michael Lewis (2023)

An absolutely riveting account of the rise and fall of Sam Bankman-Fried, his Alameda Research hedge fund and FTX exchange. the book came out before the trial at which Bankman-Fried was found guilty of fraud other financial felonies.

The person who emerges from this account is … strange. That’s not all that unusual in tech industries: as a computer science academic I encounter lots of people at varying points on the Asperger spectrum. Like many such people Bankman-Fried has a hard time relating to others and to his own feelings, and (also like many such people) is competely open about this and other aspects of his inner world. Unlike others he somehow manages to gain the trust of supposedly sophisticated investors.

Why is this? I suspect it’s got something to do with the archetypes of the Boy Genius and the Great Man of Science: people who are misunderstood but can nevertheless succeed beyond normal measure. That’s an attractive hook for investors wanting to profit off unlikely accomplishments.

Part of Bankman-Fried’s strangeness was his embrace of effective altruism and the philosophy of an analysed and quantified life. The basic premise seems to be that the probabilistic techniques that work so well in finance can be applied to all life decisions. The problem (I think) is that this is a mistake, and lots of pseudo-mathematical talk about “expected value” doesn’t disguise that: but it does throw up a smokescreen for people who aren’t themselves clear about what the maths actually says. They allow Bankman-Fried some astonishing lattitude, playing video games on reporting calls and simply not turining up for events because something else “with a higher EV” showed up. These aren’t characteristics of a reliable business partner – and would label someone with a more normal affect a sociopath.

(Why do I think the talk about EV is a mistake? In order to make an expected value calculation one needs the value of an event and the probability of that event happening. The value might be available, but what about the probability? How do we assign probabilities to events that lie a long time in the future, and whose course we don’t understand? A one-in-a-billion chance, for example, sounds impressively quantitative. But it actually only refers to three independent one-in-a-thousand events happening together. What are those events, how did we assign their probabilities, and are there really only three of them? If we don’t know all of this information, then the numbers are simply speculative, and only sound quantitative. That’s not to say that these calculations can’t be done – finance people do them regularly – but they only work under conditions of substantial information and substantial control over the environment.)

Lewis is also quietly scathing of many of the characters who emerge around FTX. The bankruptcy CEO, John Ray, comes out badly, as do the corporate lawyers. And there are some uncomfortable questions. Why did FTX file for bankruptcy in the US when it had no presence there and didn’t deal with US citizens? Why were so many senior people offered plea deals? Why were some not indicted at all?

The trial (which has happened at the time I’m writing) brought up some contradictions with Lewis’ account. He clearly takes Bankman-Fried at his word a lot of the time, especially with regard to his inner calcultions, but also with the naturalness of his unkempt image. Testimony from those close to him suggest this is naïve, and was subject to a lot of delierate design. It’s an open question whether the trial has achieved a more accurate view of Bankman-Fried’s psychology than Lewis did, though, and this book deserves to be read in that context.

5/5. Finished Sunday 19 November, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Number Go Up: Inside Crypto’s Wild Rise and Staggering Fall

Zeke Faux

A broad view of the state of modern cryptocurrencies from the perspective of an investigative financial journalist. Unlike many commentaries this work has involved serious investigation, including travel to crypto industry conferences and some less-than-enthusiastic participation in some of the activities (or scams) on offer.

The investigation starts by investigating Tether, a so-called “stablecoin” whose value is supposedly backed one-to-one by US dollars, making it essentially a digital proxy for a real fiat currency that can be injected into crypto exchanges and traded for other, more speculative, assets. But is Tether actually backed by all the dollars it claims? – by the end of the book we still don’t know, but we do know that the industry behaves as if it is, despite evidence to the contrary, because if it isn’t the entire industry is insolvent. There simply wouldn’t be enough dollars in the system to allow people to cash out.

There are some fantastically wry observations, not least how crypto presents itself as a system offering zero-trust interactions but is actually a system requiring quite extraordinary amounts of trust because of the lack of regulation, supervision, or insurance. It places participants entirely at the mercy and good intentions of actors who have every temptation to cheat behind the scenes. And the attempts to make crypto respectable (for example making them legal tender in El Salvador and Lugano) are offset by other, less credible, schemes (such as non-fungible tokens of low-resolution images trading for millions of dollars).

It’s hard to get to the end of the book without forming the opinion that all crypto is at best a techology desperately in search of an actual application, and at worst a huge confidence trick that plays on the ability of the sophisticated and unprincipled few to attrat money from those who’ve been sold a dream – and who believe it because it at least offers some hope of escape from their current circumstances.

5/5. Finished Monday 13 November, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World

Irene Vallejo (2019)

A history of books and reading.

This is a deep and cleverly-constructed history, running from the invention of papyrus scrolls to their replacement by parchment (and later paper) books. The transition away from papyrus brought with it a huge increase in comvenience – but also in the longevity of works, in that the physical stability and portability of books made it less likely that all copies of a work would disappear. Manuscripts needed to be physically copied to create another copy that might survive independently of the original; scrolls needed to be copied because they otherwise disintegrate.

Equally fascinating is the way books formed a central part of culture in the ancient world. I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of Roman libraries built in two rooms, one for the Latin and one for the Greek, and how the Romans saw and took up the challenges of Greek civilisation as a partial model (and counter-model) for their own. The centrality of literature to that endeavour is easy to overlook in more martial histories of Rome.

It’s also interesting to see the ways in which things now commonplace were once technological innovations – such as tables of contents, library catalogues, punctuation, and the like. These were shaped by the capabilities and limitations of scrolls as a storage medium, and have persisted functionally unchanged down to the present day.

5/5. Finished Saturday 4 November, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Computers That Made Britain

Tim Danton

A detailed and well-researched explortion of 1980s home and school computers: the two were often the same. All the main players are here: Research Machines, Acorn, Sinclair, Amstrad, Atari, Commodore, as well as some of the lesser-known machines.

The interations between the companies are interesting, as are the beliefs and intentions of some of the individuals involved. The relationship between Acorn and Sinclair over the BBC Micro are well-known, and include a fist-fight in a Cambridge pub when Clive Sinclair thinks Chris Curry has been underhanded. But I learned a lot about how Sinclair, Alan Sugar, and several others never really believed in home computers, even as they were changing the face of Britain (and my own life). Sinclair in particular saw the future as being pocket TVs and electric cars – and so was strangely right, and radically ahead of his time.

It’s strange that so much innovation happened in Britain, at a time of de-industrialisation. In many ways the times were right. It’s possible to build an 8-bit computer and its operating system by hand, without enormous outlay in supporting technology – which isn’t in any way to belittle the innovation and talent involved. But later generations required more industry and investment that the British players simply couldn’t find, so the world moved on to IBM PCs and games consoles. I have to say I still miss the Acorns and Amstrads and Ataris I had, and it was great to see them celebrated in this book and learn more about how they came about.

5/5. Finished Wednesday 1 November, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)